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In Praise of Grown-Ups

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The level of public discourse and obvious self interest on the part of people in leadership positions can be pretty discouraging. Oftentimes, it seems like the first instinct of leaders under pressure is to call names, deny responsibility and look out only for their self interest. It literally seems childish.

On the other hand, we sometimes have the privilege of seeing leaders in action who demonstrate maturity through reasoned, principled responses and generally acting like grown-ups should act. Over the past week, I've noticed three public sector leaders who have done that. There are some basic principles these leaders demonstrated that I think all leaders should strive to emulate.

Stand Firm, but Don't Overreact: CIA director Leon Panetta had to respond when Speaker of the House Pelosi accused his Agency of having misled her in 2002 briefings on interrogation techniques. Over the course of his long career in public service, Panetta has earned a lot of respect for his ability to work with others, his decision making ability across a range of issues and his capacity to be tough but fair. He showed all of these characteristics in how he responded to Pelosi. He didn't get into a media-driven, public mud wrestling match. Rather he released a memo to CIA employees that said the following: "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress... Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [terrorism suspect] Abu Zubaida, describing the 'enhanced techniques that had been employed.' "

That, to me, is a model of how to defend one's team. Clear, concise and issue, not personality, focused. Panetta was firm without overreacting in a way that would have needlessly escalated the media swirl.

Choose Service Over Self-Interest: Last week, Jon Huntsman, the Republican governor of Utah, accepted the President's nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to China. It's a nomination that has been universally praised because of Huntsman's personal and professional background in China (he has spoken fluent Mandarin Chinese since his days as a Mormon missionary in the region), and his track record as Utah governor. The surprise factor in this nomination is that Huntsman has been considered a front runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 and had been taking clear steps to set up a campaign.

Huntsman explained his decision to accept by recounting a conversation he had with Obama: "(We) talked a lot about service and in some cases the importance of putting self-interest and politics aside in pursuit of those things that are more important for our nation."

How refreshing is that?

Conduct Civil Discourse: Last weekend, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Notre Dame following several weeks of heated debate and protests over whether or not he should be allowed to speak there given his policies on abortion.

Rather than using the commencement address to defend his policy or just ignore the issue, Obama used the moment to pull the lens back to examine the process of how such issues should be enjoined in a civil society. As the Washington Post reported, "Obama acknowledged that 'no matter how much we want to fudge it ... the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.' But he still implored the University of Notre Dame's graduating class and all in the U.S. to stop "reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It's a way of life that always has been the Notre Dame tradition."

The emphasis in that last quote is mine. I highlighted it because I think that reductionist approach limits the capacity of people to do good work together. As St. Francis of Assisi said (and Stephen Covey later popularized), we should seek first to understand, then be understood. I appreciated that reminder in Obama's Notre Dame speech.

So, those are three encouraging examples I've seen lately of leaders acting like grown-ups by demonstrating some strong principles. Who or what do you find encouraging these days?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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